An Establishment That Remains Sound Asleep

Weekend’s greetings, Charterfolk.

Quite another eventful week in charterland. Let me see if I can draw a few threads together.

A Wake Up Call

Late this week we saw this op-ed come out from Michael Bloomberg.

It’s something of a companion piece to his announcement in December.

Like I wrote about his earlier piece, this one also gets the major points right about the sad state of public education in our country right now.

Immense losses in enrollment happening nationwide.

Stunning levels of funding being thrown at schools.

Historic learning loss happening.

On top of a collapse in learning that happened even before the pandemic.

Large numbers of parents enrolling their kids in charter schools.

The Biden Administration attempting to shut off access to those schools.

Infuriated parents pushing back.

It should be, as Bloomberg rightly points out, a “wake up call” for the public education Establishment.

Sadly, though, the Establishment remains fast asleep.

California Sleeps

As it does in so many areas of public education dysfunction, California leads the way into slumberland.

Tony Thurmond, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, talked up his priorities this week as he campaigns for his all-but-certain second term. They include rejecting any point of view on reading instruction.

It’s an argument that the Atlantic points out is not just old.

It was old 25 years ago.

We dealt with it during my credentialing class in the early 90’s when the LAUSD central administration insisted that whole language was the way to teach kids to read. Though many renowned experts in the field have clung to the district’s point of view for decades …

… most of the people I got my credential with saw within a couple weeks of trying it in the classroom that the district didn’t have a clue So we ignored them and did the common sense things we knew our kids needed to learn to read.

Thurmond’s bold leadership on this topic is “making it a high priority” that the California Department of Education get a line item in the state budget to hire reading experts whose charge will be to help school districts interpret research about literacy instruction.

Without taking any position on whether any of it actually works.

Maybe he should request a point of view from one of the eight task forces he has created during his first term.

Or get this one. When asked how schools should be held accountable for achieving third grade literacy goals, this was Thurmond’s response.

Districts need to be provided with steady resources to increase student proficiency in reading. In addition, schools need to have more support, so classroom teachers have time to work with students in small groupings according to their needs to help them make gains in literacy.

I am in the process of asking every local education agency in our state to commit to reaching literacy by third grade. Hundreds of LEAs have signed a pledge and committed to achieving literacy by third grade. Currently, we are in the process of identifying the technical assistance that LEAs will need to reach these goals.


Accountability is more money? Accountability is asking school districts to make a pledge?

zzzzzz ….

Believe me, CharterFolk. Don’t spend any time trying to figure this out. It’s utter vacuousness, emblematic of the fact that the entire public education Establishment in our nation’s most populous state has fallen completely and utterly asleep.

New York Sleeps

Sadly, it’s also representative of the slumber that has taken hold elsewhere.

Like in Bloomberg’s backyard. Here’s the news from over the weekend.

The New York state legislature just approved a class size reduction bill. Talk about an argument that’s 25 years old!

A big wave of CSR proposals were enacted in the 90’s, and they’ve become a perennial favorite of the teacher unions ever since. Ravitch couldn’t be happier about the news.

Meanwhile the idea itself has been shown to have only small impact while requiring immense levels of investment when implemented at statewide or district-wide levels.

What also gets little attention is the equity implication when large numbers of teachers shift away from working in schools serving low income students to working in more affluent areas as new positions are created due to the reduction in class size. I know that one well, having been a teacher at Hooper Avenue when CSR was implemented in California during my first years of teaching. (I can’t even estimate. Was half our entire faculty first or second-year teachers back then?)

Of course, what makes the idea an even worse one in the current context is the fact that New York, like most places in the country, is suffering from a severe teacher shortage.

So imagine the impact this is going to have on high need schools in New York right now. Yes, senior teachers are going to get the chance to shift to other schools as many of them want to do. But what’s supposed to happen to the kids and families served by the hardest to staff schools when they end up having even more disruptive teacher turnover? Even more subs? If any subs can be found at all?

zzzzz …

Again, don’t work too hard trying to find some underlying theory here, CharterFolk. There isn’t any. It’s just another manifestation of a public education Establishment where the lights are sadly out.

DC Sleeps

I’ll offer a last example of slumberland thinking coming out of Washington this week where US Education Secretary advocated for the “community school concept.”

In another context this spring Cardona described community schools as a way “to make schools different than they were before, to try things differently.”

Now obviously, schools having wrap-around services for kids and families and integrating various community resources into their offerings is great.

But something bold and new?

John Dewey was writing about this concept 120 years ago!

During my teaching days, groups of teachers and the administration did all sorts of cool things to get health services and legal services and other supports available on our campus.

It’s the fact that the Establishment tries to present this as something novel that I find so stunning. Not to mention the utter vacuousness with which the idea is advanced.

Check out the NEA’s primer on it …

A defining characteristic of a community school is that it recognizes kids come to school facing challenges that affect their ability to learn and grow?

Can someone find me a place on earth that calls itself a school that doesn’t understand that students face challenges?

Or CTA’s:

Again, can anyone find me a school on earth that says it doesn’t want family members and school staff and community members working well together to support students?

This is sound asleep thinking. Zs floating out of the collective mind of the Establishment.

But now they’ve got policy makers convinced that making community schools is actually doing something different. Cardona wants $468M in federal money going to the concept next year. California has already created a $3 billion program built around community schools.

And look, I get it. Charter schools are applying for these funds, and some of them are going to use these funds incredibly well. Charter schools are the ones that showed that community schools as conceived by Dewey all those years ago are in fact possible …

… sparking all sorts of conversations with incredible leaders from our movement about how to replicate such results.

But history shows again and again, that massive new resources blown through our existing broken public education structures come to naught.

Like when Annenberg made its decision to invest $500m in school communities using language very similar to the language being used today to describe community schools.

At the time, it was the largest philanthropic investment in public education ever to have been made in the United States. The announcement came during my sixth month in teaching. Like so many others I was excited. I volunteered to serve as our school’s coordinator for “LEARN,” as the Annenberg reform effort came to be known in Los Angeles.

But it was stunning how quickly we all came to see the whole thing to be a massive waste of time and precious resources.

This quote from perhaps the most respected education reformer of his generation sums it up well.

Veteran school reformer Theodore R. Sizer, who in 1996 quit as director of the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, admits problems with Annenberg’s approach: “If I had been king, I would have spent a lot less time negotiating through the system as it was and is and much more time in funding “different’ systems,” Sizer told Education Week. “I just don’t think that putting the control in the hands of the existing hierarchy is going to do it.”

CharterFolk, as Bloomberg properly points out, we are living through a critical moment, one where it is imperative that our public education system wakes up to the scale of the challenge that is before it and begins to enact reforms that will regain the confidence of parents and the general public that, in fact, public education can perform the base functions that our society expects it to do.

Sadly, the proposals that the Establishment is bringing forward in the current environment reveal that it is bereft of new ideas. And its only hope is to keep doing what it’s always done but to try to convince people that the old broken status quo is actually something new.

This is absolutely not going to work. While the Establishment may be asleep, parents and the broader public are wide awake to the fact that something substantively different needs to be made or they are ready turn to something else in ways they never have before.

I don’t suggest to any of us that we get too distracted by the particulars of the Establishment’s dysfunction. The point of this post was not to encourage any of us to contest what the Establishment is doing. They are going to do what they are going to do.

The point was to highlight the fact that the unravelling of the public system in our country is happening even faster than most of us expected, and the system itself has virtually no potential to self-correct.

With that being the case, our world must take on with even greater urgency and pace the challenge of building the new learning opportunities and new advocacy strength that will be needed for our country to navigate a period of change within public education more profound than any we have seen before.